Always on the move, Hoffman manages only to skim the surfaces of these complex societies. Yet he gathers insights into the fortitude of third-world travelers, his own competing yearnings for domestic stability and adventure, and the brutal economics of mass transportation in impoverished parts of the globe.
The New York Times
Publishers Weekly - Library Journal
Travel and technology journalist Hoffman (Hunting Warbirds) had two motives for penning this tour of the world's most life-threatening modes of transportation, including trains in India, buses in South America, and trucks in Afghanistan: to expose the "parallel reality," obscured by the tourism industry, of millions for whom "travel was still a punishing, unpredictable, and sometimes deadly work of travail"; and for thrills. By the first measure-showing how much of the world gets from place to place-Hoffman is commendably fascinating: his depiction of the horrors people endure just to see family members or get to work is unforgettable. Unfortunately, Hoffman's secondary motive dominates much of the ruminating prose, and it's hard to sympathize with his middle-aged family-man angst when he's subjecting his teenage daughter to a 24-hour ride across South American mountains in a bus with no bathroom. Elsewhere, a powerful description of the Indian train system segues into a tepid quasi-love affair. Readers with the patience to avoid some self-indulgent side-tracks will find much to reconsider during their next tough commute.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
From the Publisher
“This book is fabulous. The lean description, the weave of old and new perspective, the personalities, the real-people wisdom, and that the danger is as real as we don't want to think it is. The Lunatic Express is refreshing, liberating, and a paean to true Travel. Hoffman opened my eyes to the off-the-grid traveler, clearly most of the world, and made me cry. The last pages struck home; the duality of escape and harbor are the blessing and curse of life.” Keith Bellows, Editor-in-Chief of National Geographic Traveler
“Reinvented the travel log as the supreme theater of paradox…a search for an unholy grail—something freakish; something dangerous; something authentic… Take this ride.” -Richard Bangs, Producer/Host of the Public Television series, Adventures with Purpose
"There are two possibilities: we move through the world, or the world moves through us. Carl Hoffman's clever, funny, fearsome book does both. It takes us into the frantic fear and pitiless extinctions that punctuate the simple struggle to get from home to anywhere, for so many of the world's people. But it also takes us into the heart of the writer: and that journey, with its beauty and compassion, its conscience and courage, is so thrilling that we hope the ride never ends." Gregory David Roberts, author of SHANTARAM
“Carl Hoffman, a courageous and interestingly untroubled man from Washington, D.C., has done a great service by reminding us, in The Lunatic Express, of this abiding truism: that the world’s ordinary traveler is compelled to endure all too much while undertaking the grim necessities of modern movement…Mr. Hoffman spent a fascinating year going around the world precisely as most of the world's plainest people do—not on JetBlue or United or American or Trailways, modes of transport that look positively heavenly by comparison, but in the threadbare conveyances of the planet's billions….He learns along the way a great deal about the habits of the world's peripatetic poor, and he writes about both the process and the people with verve and charity, making this book both extraordinary and extraordinarily valuable….It is a wise and clever book too, funny, warm and filled with astonishing characters. But it also represents an important exercise, casting an Argus-eye on a largely invisible but un-ignorable world. It is thus a book that deserves to be read widely. Perhaps in some airport in a blinding rainstorm in the Midwest, while waiting for yet another infernally delayed American plane.” – Simon Winchester, Wall Street Journal
Read an Excerpt
Mumbai: The city’s cattle class train commute has put a big question mark over the future of a brilliant sixteen-year-old girl. Raushan
Jawwad, who scored over 92 percent in her class X examination a few months ago, lost both legs after being pushed out of a crowded local train near Andheri on Tuesday.
—Times of India, October 17, 2008
The 290th Victim
“Everything in that book is true,” said Nasirbhai. It was almost
100 degrees, the humidity of the Bay of Bengal pressing down, and he was wearing a white dress shirt over a sleeveless undershirt, pleated black slacks, and black oxford shoes. Small scars were etched around brown eyes that studied me from a wide, inscrutable face; a big stone of lapis studded one finger,
and a silver bracelet dangled from his wrist. He had a barrel chest and his hands hung at his sides, ready, waiting— never in his pockets. He looked immovable, like a pitbull, like a character from another time and place, and in a way he was. “That book” was Shantaram, the international best-selling novel written by Australian Gregory David Roberts, who’d escaped from prison in Oz and found his way to Bombay two decades ago,
where he’d become deeply involved with its criminal gangs and
Nasir— who always carried the honorific bhai, “uncle.”
“We met in the 1980s,” Nasirbhai said, standing on a corner in Colaba, one of Mumbai’s oldest neighborhoods and its tourist epicenter, the streets lined with vendors selling tobacco and sandals and newspapers and bangles, pedestrians as thick on the sidewalks as attendees at a rock concert. Roberts was famous now, a Mumbai legend, and through a friend of a friend had connected me to Nasirbhai, who agreed to take me deep onto the commuter trains of the most crowded city on earth, where the day’s simple commute was a matter of life and death. “Traveling on these trains is very risky because they are so full,” Nasirbhai said. “But people must be at work, they must not be late or their boss will fire them. They must get to their destination, so they lean out of the doors, hang on to the windows, climb on top of the train. They risk their life to get to work every day.”
By population, the city— just nineteen miles across, with 19
million souls— was bigger than 173 countries. The population density of America was thirty-one people per square kilometer;
Singapore 2,535 and Bombay island 17,550; some neighborhoods had nearly one million people per square kilometer. A
never-ending stream of Indians was migrating to Mumbai,
which was swelling, groaning, barely able to keep pace. In 1990
an average of 3,408 people were packing a nine-car train; ten years later that number had grown to more than 4,500. Seven million people a day rode the trains, fourteen times the whole population of Washington, D.C. But it was the death rate that shocked the most; Nasirbhai was no exaggerating alarmist. In
April 2008 Mumbai’s Central and Western railway released the official numbers: 20,706 Mumbaikers killed on the trains in the last five years. They were the most dangerous conveyances on earth.
Copyright (c) 2010 by Carl Hoffman.
From the Hardcover edition.